Over 120 detailed images of ancient Egyptian boats dating back 3,800 years have been discovered carved into the wall of a building in Abydos, Egypt. The recent research has greatly expanded earlier knowledge of the site that derived from a brief, exploratory phase of work conducted in 1901–1903 by Arthur Weigall and Charles Currelly on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund. During that time Weigall discovered the tomb of Senwosret III, the fifth monarch of the Twelfth Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom, who ruled from 1878 BC to 1839 BC during a time of great power and prosperity. According to contemporary archaeologists, the building is nearly four millennia old.
In a report recently published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Josef Wegner, a decorated Egyptologist and Associate Professor in Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania and leader of the excavation, wrote that the series of images, known as a tableau, would have overlooked a real wooden boat, as evidenced by fragments from the boat’s structure that are still being excavated. In ancient Egypt, boats being buried near a pharaoh’s tomb wasn’t an uncommon custom, a fact that makes Wegner believe that the very few remaining planks of the wooden boat, were most likely constructed at Abydos, or could have possibly been dragged across the desert.
The interior of the boat building (J. Wegner)The unparalleled nature of this royal tomb enclosure has necessitated systematic examination of its component elements in order to understand the overall functions of the enclosure and the subterranean tomb located within it. Archaeologists recently found that the tableau was incised on the white plaster walls of the building. The occurrence of remnants of plaster and paint on a number of the wood fragments documented in 2014 and 2016 is intriguing. However, the most impressive feature of the South Abydos boat building is undoubtedly its decoration with numerous incised images of more than 120 individual boats, creating an informally arranged tableau extending over a total length of 82 feet (25m) on the side walls and end wall. The largest images are nearly 5 feet (152cm) in length and depict large, well-rendered boats depicted with masts, sails, rigging, deckhouses/cabins, rudders, oars and in some cases rowers.
Examples of boat images incised on the better-preserved north side of the building. (J. Wegner)Wegner reports that in addition to the boats, the tableau contains incised images of gazelle, cattle and flowers. Further, near the entranceway of the building, archaeologists discovered more than 145 pottery vessels, many of which are buried with their necks facing toward the building’s entrance. According to Wegner, the vessels are necked, liquid-storage jars, usually termed “beer jars” although probably used for storage and transport of a variety of liquids.
Although, the documentation of the building itself is now complete with a significant set of evidence regarding the building's function, there are still many questions to be answered. The archaeologists can’t be sure about who drew the tableau or why they created it. Wegner adds,
“We can’t conclusively answer that on the basis of what’s preserved. We could speculate that the people who built the boat also created the tableau. Or, perhaps, a group of people taking part in a funerary ceremony after the death of pharaoh Senwosret III etched the images onto the building walls. Yet another possibility is that a group of people gained access to the building after the pharaoh died and created the tableau. Archaeologists found that a group of individuals entered the building at some point after the pharaoh’s death and took the boat apart, reusing the planks.”
Aerial view taken by the British Royal Air Force, c.1924 showing the environs of the Senwosret III tomb enclosure. (Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society)Archaeologists are also curious about all the pottery found near the entrance of the building and the motivation behind the jar deposit and liquid offerings remains open to interpretation. Wegner says in his paper:
“Liquid offerings form an integral part of the personal funerary cult in Egyptian mortuary practice, but are not normally associated with inanimate objects. In this case there may be some other level of symbolism. Potentially a massive decanting of liquid, likely predominantly water, at the entrance of the building was a way of magically floating the boat, now housed within its subterranean desert bunker, so that it might symbolically sail into the netherworld along with the king whose funerary ceremonies it may have just recently accompanied. Such an act would be consistent with the otherwise incongruous practice of burying watercraft in the desert, and the need to symbolically bridge the transition between the desert environment and a perceived use for the vessel in an afterlife existence where boats were as central to travel and transport as they were in the living world.”The only certain thing, according to Wegner, is that the evidence at the site adds further evidence that may eventually help solve the various mysteries and unsolved puzzles. He reassures us that his team plans to carry out excavations in the future to get all the answers the archaeological circles seek.
Wegner’s team, in cooperation with Egypt’s Ministryof State for Antiquities, carried out the excavations of the building between 2014 and 2016.
Top image: 3,800-year-old building containing 120 carvings of Egyptian boats. Credit: Josef Wegner.By Theodoros II